Monday, January 01, 2007

Spider-man: Reign #1

Spider-man: Reign #1, February 2007, Marvel Comics
writer/illustrator: Kaare Andrews
letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
assistant editor: Michael O’Connor
editor: Axel Andrews
EIC: Joe Quesada

My first comic book of the new year seems to be the first installment of Spider-man’s last adventure. I’ve been anticipating Spider-man: Reign for some time now. The Amazing Spider-man was the first series I collected on a monthly basis, thanks to the few issues that were in the box of comics my father gave me over fifteen years ago (see my review of Savage Dragon #0 for the whole story), and although I endured most of the original Clone Saga, my wallet couldn’t bare the commitment both Peter Parker and Ben Reilly demanded week after week. Things have changed since then, Spidey’s titles have relaunched seemingly doppelganger free, and I’ve check in on old Webhead from time to time, but I haven’t delved back into his books as I have more than once with Batman or the Justice League after their annual, multi-title crises. Spider-man’s clone-ridden crossover was my first financial crisis, and you know what they say: the first cut is the deepest. As a four-issue miniseries with its own Elseworlds-like continuity, Spider-man: Reign is free of that baggage. So, you can understand why I’ve been looking forward to it.

Also, Spider-man: Reign is inarguably The Dark Knight Returns for Spider-man. I can’t think of any other way to put it, and although I haven’t read any other reviews or message boards about the series, I’m sure the fanbase is buzzing about the blatant parallels. This first installment takes place ten years after superhero activity dominated the city, and our hero, raggedly aged and hiding behind a mess of uncharacteristic facial hair, is struggling between the tragedies of his past and an apathy onset by the circumstances of his future. The city is overrun by a mob of authoritative deviants who abuse their self-appointed power with reckless abandon, harassing youth and the elderly alike, and in the face of their rising terrorism, our hero is overcome by his sense of responsibility and dons his old costume again. Despite the years behind him, he perseveres and inspires a nostalgic hope . . . until he punches J. Jonah Jameson in the face. See, until that last detail, I was adequately describing the first chapter of The Dark Knight Returns and Spider-man: Reign. You didn’t even need me to tell you that writer/artist Kaare Andrews went so far as to name the derivative, outspoken news anchor Miller Janson – but I’ve mentioned it anyway, if only to highlight the similar use of media satire to drive the culminating subplots and to splash some much needed humor onto an otherwise dark and stormy landscape.

Of course, Spider-man: Reign is distinctly different from The Dark Knight Returns, as well, but only insomuch as Peter Parker is worlds apart from Bruce Wayne. Whereas Batman is a millionaire with all of the trappings such a lifestyle entails, i.e. racecar driving and horseback riding, Spider-man was always definitively poor, or at least “down on his luck,” and apparently his potential future offers a similarly unfortunate destiny. In fact, Parker makes the connection himself when his “little Napoleon” of a boss fires him from the flower shop: “No money. No job. No dignity. Just like old times.” Further, the deviants I referenced earlier are not traditional villains, like Frank Miller’s X-Men inspired teenaged mutants, but rather police officers, dubbed the Reign. When Jameson, who was old to begin with, gives Parker an old Spider-man mask (notably from his black costume) and subjects himself to some police brutality in an attempt to “resurrect” our friendly neighborhood hero, one of the crooked cops proclaims, “We chased your kind out of this city a long time ago!” The reader can only assume that this exclamation is a reference to the mysterious events of “ten years ago,” and that in future issues, the past will slowly but surely be unveiled.

In my opinion, the most disturbing difference between Dark Knight and Reign is the obvious absence of Spider-man’s diverse supporting cast. In the first issue of Dark Knight, Miller introduces almost all of the major players, including the then-sedated Joker, and although Bruce is a reclusive figure, he is by no means alone. Heck, Alfred is even still alive, albeit barely, seemingly clinging to his serving tray for dear life until his curtain call in the title’s final pages. Until Jameson shows up in Reign, Peter is the only character we actually know; the rest of the cast, including the sure-to-be-evil Mayor Waters, doesn’t even allude to a connection to characters from the past. (Yes, Mayor Osborn would have been too obvious, but Mayor Brant? Police Commissioner Felix Hardy? Get it?) The effort must have been intentional, because Jonah’s appearance warrants a splash page, as if Andrews is telling the reader, “Your patience will be rewarded. I know what I’m doing.” Now, Mary Jane is present, but briefly, and since Spider-man is clutching her gravestone on the cover of this issue, I assume her appearance is simply a ghost from the past, an echo of Peter’s true loneliness. Again, I’m looking forward to the rest of the miniseries with the assumption that all will be explained, and, unlike the Clone Saga, I know how long I need to commit.

I’ve never encountered the work of Kaare Andrews before, so I don’t know if the visual parallels to Frank Miller’s style is intentional, but the melodramatic narrative is both reminiscent of Dark Knight while masterfully retaining the essence of Spider-man’s character, including the scene in which Peter decides to don the mask, which is strikingly akin to Bruce’s climatic moments with The Mark of Zorro. (“The fabric . . . has eyes. I look into those eyes and all I see is myself.”) Aside from the line I quoted earlier, two others struck me, the first of which mentions Peter’s spider-skills in this story for the first time: “Do you hear that sound? The ringing in your ears? That high octane pitched whine? Like a siren? Doctors have a name for it. I’m not sure what they call it, but I have my own name.” Parker doesn’t say it, but we finish the thought for him; well done. Also, although I won’t quote it here, I must express an appreciation for the way Andrews establishes Spidey’s trademark banter. While beating up those meddling cops, the quips are flying as fast as the punches, but Peter’s woe-is-me monologue continues, insisting that he is watching the scene as we are, as if the mask were an entity in itself. It’s an interesting dichotomy and perhaps the ultimate difference between Batman and Spider-man; while Bruce Wayne was consumed with his quest for justice, Peter Parker sought a civilian life, meaningful existence inside and outside of the costume. I wonder which will reign at the end of this miniseries.

I’ve alluded to the point before, but Spider-man: Reign proves my theory: our generation of fanfolk is eager for another The Dark Knight Returns. We need a fresh take on the heroes of our youth to make them fun and relevant again. Every time they appear on the big screen, we wait in line to see them “for real.” Every time Frank Miller’s name is attached to a superhero project, we hope he recaptures that original magic, but even he is too consumed by his own hype to hold up that lightning rod. It won’t strike twice. Spider-man: Reign is close, and I think Andrews is onto something both nostalgic and new. (This is a clone saga of a different color, I suppose. I just hope we see what became of some of Spidey’sbad guys next issue!) Spider-man is the perfect character about whom to prophesy in this context. While the tragedy of his uncle’s death creates a Batman-like motivation, as the most popular and idealistic character of a major comic publishing company, Spidey is also very Superman-like, retaining a canonship with definitively global proportions. Yes, his future is a dark one, but Andrews uses the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” nursery rhyme to kick off this adventure, an element that is as haunting as it is hopeful. At the end of the day – or in this case, the beginning of the year – these heroes have and always will speak to the wide-eyed kid in all of us. The future can’t take that away.

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